This post continues what has evolved into my critical series on Jonathan Haidt (see parts 1 and 2). The burden of the first two posts was: probably a good time to talk about justice, eh? So let’s. I’m going to split it into two, so I can kvetch about how Haidt is confused about Mill (this post), then try to do better myself (next post).
I got email about my last post (not just comments!) suggesting Haidt could do better than I give him credit for. I am 100% sure this is correct. I reconstructed Haidt’s argument with a conspicuously cloudy Premise 3: “something something plurality something pluralism something diversity?” I am sure Haidt could tighten that one up. Yet it does not seem to me he, in fact, has. In this post I am going to lay out textual evidence. Having done my best to expose the logical worst, I’m going to close this post by trying to say how he got into this hole. Honestly, I think I get it. He wants to have his Mill and eat his Durkheim, too. Best of both. I also get why he might feel his bridge from Durkheim to Mill might be load-bearing.
First, a basic point about the sense of ‘justice’ at issue in this post. (A sense we will have to broaden if and when I get around to the follow-up.)
Haidt is, we know, concerned about under-representation of conservatives in academe. There are two possible grounds for such concern.
1) It’s distributively unfair, hence unjust to conservatives, if there is viewpoint discrimination against them, as a result of which they fail to gain employment (or they lose employment).
2) It’s intellectually damaging to debate to have few conservatives present in conversations in which, predictably, liberals and conservatives will find themselves at odds.
I have no idea what Haidt thinks about 1. His arguments concern 2, so I’m going to focus on that. Justice as in: optimal intellectual balance. Epistemic justice. Justice as in justification. Not distributive justice.
On we go.
Haidt responded to my first, critical post with a somewhat exasperated post of his own, which pretty much came to: how hard is this, really? Can’t we agree a bit of Mill would be in order? Can’t we eyeball these justice-as-in-intellectual-balance scales and agree they are off?
Mill and I and the rest of Heterodox Academy think it would be better to expose students — and professors — to people who hold views across the political spectrum, especially if you can do it within an institution that fosters a sense of community and norms of civility. We don’t care about balance. We don’t need every view to be represented. We just want to break up orthodoxy. Is that illogical?
I said in my second post this does sound pretty good. But, on examination, it is illogical. Well, at least one form of it. I constructed a reductio ad absurdum. Based on Haidt’s writings, one of the big reasons why he wants to break up liberal/progressive hegemony in academe is he thinks this is a perilously narrow moral perch, foundations-wise. Getting some conservatives in would broaden that. But Haidt also wants to combat PC – the repressive orthodoxy of SJW’s. But PC is very morally broad-based, in Haidt’s own sense. So if the problem were moral narrowness, per se, repressive PC-culture should solve it, not exemplify it. Haidt is pushing for more conservatism, less SJW-style activism, on campus. But, through the lens of his own moral foundations-theory, it’s same-same. How not?
Recently Haidt has argued that the telos of the university is truth – not social justice. But this could as easily be an argument for keeping conservatives out as letting them in. The telos of conservatism is not truth; it’s … conserving. (Something-something.) Suppose on Earth-2 (where William F. Buckley’s God and Man At Yale is considered a Bible of curricular planning) Jonathan Haidt-2 gives a talk that is point-for-point analogous to our (Earth-1) Haidt talk, making the case that universities should take measures to restrict the influence of conservatives on campus. Instead of starting with a quote from Marx about how the point is change, Haidt-2 starts with one from Burke about how the point is not-change:
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
Haidt-2 is impassioned about how the university is properly a place for those grasshoppers to be importunate, and if a load of thoughtless conservative cattle trample them, the university is not the place it should be.
Why should I accept Haidt’s argument, rather than Haidt-2’s argument?
Haidt will presumably reply: I’m both right! We are talking about corrective measures and it is perfectly imaginable that in one context there are too many conservatives, in another too few.
Yes, that is rather intuitive. Yet it’s actually not clear. How will we know when we have finally landed on Earth-Goldilocks, which is neither too conservative nor not-conservative-enough but just right? Is it supposed to be obvious by looking at the picture?
Here the response might be: look, we needn’t solve this thing to three significant moral digits. I use my common sense and admit I don’t know what the metaphysically perfect balance of liberals-conservatives in academe is, sub specie aeternitatus; but this balance we’ve got looks seriously skewed left – just look at the data! How could that be optimal? So let’s nudge it a bit. Mischief managed.
Yes, but if we are going to take this sort of ecological corrective view, what’s wrong with those on the other side expanding our sense of the scope of the ecology whose balance we should be rejiggering: the President is a Republican, Congress is Republican, the courts will soon be Republican, the state houses and governorships skew Republican, the Constitution skews rural when it comes to counting votes. All this, and you are worried a few besieged blue dots in a sea of red are too blue? Talk about lacking a sense of proportion!
What is being corrected? Which values are absolute, which ones are more instrumental? For example: does Haidt think we need more conservatives on campus because we have a duty to be agnostic as to whether, ideally, we should want campuses to be relatively (Durkheimian) conservative places, more so than (Millian) liberal enclaves? But if that’s so, how can he be sure they aren’t better off as (Durkheimian) SJW indoctrination camps? Or is the idea, rather, that we know Millian liberalism shall be our master value (because we know it’s true?) But, in order to keep the quality of the liberal kayfabe up, we need real conservatives on campus to act as convincing sparring partners? They need to lose with conviction.
I’m sure Haidt is not going to like either of those two options. But then what? Honestly, what are we valuing? And why?
Let me push past reductio -style puzzles to a direct confrontation with the intellectual root of the trouble.
I’m going to continue critiquing Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, as I did in the previous post. This means my critique will have a somewhat indirect bearing on the stuff at Heterodox Academy. Not all that stuff is based on Haidt’s book, yet if these Righteous Mind arguments are active in their minds – Haidt is one of their active minds – and if the argument are bad, that’s a sign they may not have made their minds up right.
In what sense is Haidt a Millian? How and why?
As I mentioned, Haidt was evidently a bit exasperated by my refusal to go for common-sense Millianism in my first post. For my part, I experienced my own moment of exasperation while reading Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, seeing him try to stick the landing such that he lands on Mill. He starts his routine in a very different place. With Durkheim. I quoted him in my last post complaining (bemusedly) about how WEIRD his students all are [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic]. Buying Mill’s Harm Principle is weirdest-of-the-WEIRD. Kids these days are too quick to buy Mill. Haidt is determined to bust us out of our WEIRD little box.
And yet he is exasperated when others won’t buy his Millian arguments about the university. So what gives?
Let me just quote him, quoting himself (from an earlier article) about Mill vs. Durkheim:
First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill’s vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama’s calls for “unity”) to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.
On the other hand:
Now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other’s selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness) and wrote, in 1897, that “man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.” A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for out-groups.
Obviously there is some tension here, to put it mildly. Obviously Haidt perfectly well sees that. Yet he’s going to skate from the latter back to the former by means of a slick rhetorical move I like to classify as your basic ‘Nixon Goes To China with a Chestertonian antinomy double-lutz’. I’ve watched other thinkers try to stick this challenging landing. I will explain the name. For now, here’s how it proceeds in Haidt’s case.
Haidt begins with a sweeping dismissal of some major moral theories, on grounds of unhealthy monism. (Haidt, per the previous post, per above, is concerned with healthy ecologies of value. He distrusts moral monoculture. It’s unstable, it’s blind.)
Morality is so rich and complex, so multifaceted and internally contradictory. Pluralists such as [Richard] Shweder rise to the challenge, offering theories that can explain moral diversity within and across cultures. Yet many authors reduce morality to a single principle, usually some variant of welfare maximization (basically, help people, don’t hurt them). Or sometimes it’s justice or related notions of fairness, rights, or respect for individuals and their autonomy. There’s The Utilitarian Grill, serving only sweeteners (welfare), and The Deontological Diner, serving only salts (rights). Those are your options. Neither Shweder nor I am saying that “anything goes,” or that all societies or all cuisines are equally good. But we believe that moral monism — the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle — leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.
Haidt proceeds to offer armchair clinical diagnoses of both Bentham and Kant as possible Asperger’s cases. Likely, in Bentham’s case; more doubtful in Kant’s (he was a very social dude, was Kant):
Bentham’s philosophy showed an extraordinary degree of systemizing, and as Baron-Cohen says, systemizing is a strength. Problems arise, however, when systemizing occurs in the absence of empathizing. In an article titled “Asperger’s Syndrome and the Eccentricity and Genius of Jeremy Bentham,” Philip Lucas and Anne Sheeran collect accounts of Bentham’s personal life and compare them to the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome. They find a close match on the main diagnostic criteria, including those involving low empathy and poor social relationships. Bentham had few friends as a child, and he left a string of angry ex-friends as an adult. He never married, referred to himself as a hermit, and seemed to care little about other people. One contemporary said of him: “He regards the people about him no more than the flies of a summer.” A related criterion is an impaired imaginative capacity, particularly with respect to the inner lives of other people. In his philosophy as in his personal behavior, Bentham offended many of his contemporaries by his inability to perceive variety and subtlety in human motives. John Stuart Mill — a decidedly non-autistic utilitarian — came to despise Bentham. He wrote that Bentham’s personality disqualified him as a philosopher because of the “incompleteness” of his mind: “In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature he had no sympathy; from many of its graver experiences he was altogether cut off; and the faculty by which one mind understands a mind different from itself, and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind, was denied him by his deficiency of Imagination.” Lucas and Sheeran conclude that had Bentham been alive today, “it is likely he would have received the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.”
Sidebar note: it isn’t right that Mill said Bentham’s extreme personality ‘disqualified him as a philosopher’. That’s too strong for Mill even at his most anti-Bentham. But, pushing on, Haidt hastens to add:
I do not want to suggest that utilitarianism and Kantian deontology are incorrect as moral theories just because they were founded by men who may have had Asperger’s syndrome. That would be an ad hominem argument, a logical error, and a mean thing to say … But in psychology our goal is descriptive. We want to discover how the moral mind actually works, not how it ought to work.
Nevertheless, since Haidt does not canvas any arguments whatsoever for utilitarianism or Kantianism, at any point, yet he clearly presumes to reject them on some basis, the basis for his normative rejection can only be these speculative diagnoses … plus, as aforementioned, the ecological concern that utilitarianism and deontology are hazardously monotonic.
So let’s give Haidt the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the latter. No monotonic theory could be true. These are monotonic theories. They can’t be true.
“So what is there beyond harm and fairness?” Haidt asks.
It turns out, per my previous Haidt posts, that there are four more things, hence six things – six fundamental values, in total.
But, in a more accurate sense, it turns out that what we find when we venture boldly forth beyond harm and fairness is … harm.
Near the end of the book Haidt provides, in one sentence, what he evidently regards as the correct theory: “I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good.”
The whole argument is this: “I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.”
That’s it. I have now given you the argument, alpha and omega, soup-to-nuts, that Haidt musters on behalf of his normative conclusion. Having argued earlier that we can’t afford to think just inside one WEIRD box – as rationalists tend to – Haidt now maintains the one weird trick turns out to be to focus, pluralistically, just on what we need inside our one WEIRD box. He regards this as sufficiently plausible that – just as he provided no arguments against utilitarianism earlier, when dismissing it as borderline autistic – he provides no arguments in favor of it now. He simply labels it manifestly sane, a humane basis for pluralism.
He proceeds to use the term ‘Durkheimian utilitarianism’. The idea is, obviously: best of both. Higher synthesis. But in what sense(s)? “I just want Bentham to read Durkheim and recognize that we are Homo duplex before he tells any of us, or our legislators, how to go about maximizing that total good.”
But why should this point us towards Mill’s On Liberty rather than towards, say, Plato’s Republic?
Plato wanted to maximize the Good. Plato thought it was vitally important to recognize that the soul is divided. Why shouldn’t we assemble an elite group of social justice warriors, kidnap a bunch of little kids, and found Plato’s Republic?
Haidt has a lot more to say in his book about ‘Durkheimian utilitarianism’, but not a lot – in fact nothing, so far as I can see – that addresses such rather basic concerns. Why Mill, not Plato? Why conservatives, not social justice warriors? If you don’t have any answer to such basic questions, you’ve got a lot of thinking left to do. The most I can do on Haidt’s behalf, without just leaving him behind, is to point out how the position he jumps to – never mind how he gets there – has a certain attraction. Let me now frame it as favorably as I can.
Haidt should read Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination. I’ve never seen him reference it. I think he would like it. I think he would say: this is just what I have been saying! I’m not feeding it to him as some sneaky poison pill. I think Haidt is a Trilling liberal. I used to be one of those myself but I eventually decided it doesn’t really work. Trilling starts with Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, just as Haidt thinks we should. From the Preface to The Liberal Imagination:
Contemporary liberalism does not depreciate emotion in the abstract, and in the abstract it sets great store by variousness and possibility. Yet, as is true of any other human entity, the conscious and the unconscious life of liberalism are not always in accord. So far as liberalism is active and positive, so far, that is, as it moves toward organization, it tends to select the emotions and qualities that are most susceptible of organization. As it carries out its active and positive ends it unconsciously limits its view of the world to what it can deal with, and it unconsciously tends to develop theories and principles, particularly in relation to the nature of the human mind, that justify its limitation. Its characteristic paradox appears again, and in another form, for in the very interests of its great primal act of imagination by which it establishes its essence and existence — in the interests, that is, of its vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life — it drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination. And in the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind, it inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of mind. Mill, to refer to him a last time, understood from his own experience that the imagination was properly the joint possession of the emotions and the intellect, that it was fed by the emotions, and that without it the intellect withers and dies, that without it the mind cannot work and cannot properly conceive itself. I do not know whether or not Mill had particularly in mind a sentence from the passage from Thomas Burnet’s Archaeologiae Philosophicae which Coleridge quotes as the epigraph to The Ancient Mariner, the sentence in which Burnet says that a judicious belief in the existence of demons has the effect of keeping the mind from becoming “narrow, and lapsed entirely into mean thoughts,” but he surely understood what Coleridge, who believed in demons as little as Mill did, intended by his citation of the passage. Coleridge wanted to enforce by that quaint sentence from Burnet what is the general import of The Ancient Mariner apart from any more particular doctrine that exegesis may discover — that the world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks.
It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify, and this tendency is natural in view of the effort which liberalism makes to organize the elements of life in a rational way. And when we approach liberalism in a critical spirit, we shall fail in critical completeness if we do not take into account the value and necessity of its organizational impulse. But at the same time we must understand that organization means delegation, and agencies, and bureaus, and technicians, and that the ideas that can survive delegation, that can be passed on to agencies and bureaus and technicians, incline to be ideas of a certain kind and of a certain simplicity: they give up something of their largeness and modulation and complexity in order to survive. The lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule — this sense does not suit well with the impulse to organization. So that when we come to look at liberalism in a critical spirit, we have to expect that there will be a discrepancy between what I have called the primal imagination of liberalism and its present particular manifestations.
I say: this is Haidt. This is what he is driving at. This is what he means when he says he wants ‘Durkheimian utilitarianism’.
Which brings me to: Nixon goes to China. “Only Nixon could go to China” is, of course, an old Vulcan proverb – and there is a touch of the Vulcan about Haidt, just as there was about Bentham (no doubt!)
Trilling and Haidt have an only-Nixon-can-go-to-China theory of liberalism. Liberalism is right, but, paradoxically, liberalism generates a temperament that is incapable of sustaining liberalism. Liberalism needs to infuse itself with – inoculate itself with – anti-liberalism, lest it itself become anti-liberal. Never trust a liberal to run liberalism. They’ll screw it up. This is why it makes intuitive sense to Haidt to trash Jeremy Bentham personally, and to regard this very act as establishing his bona fides as a competent Benthamite. Benthamism is obviously the only sane philosophy. But the only Benthamite you can trust is a Benthamite who would never trust Bentham. Because Bentham was a nut.
Utilitarianism should be instituted by those who are not tempted by it. Just as, if you really are going to try to institute Plato’s Republic, you should probably hire Edmund Burke as Philosopher King. That would help you to avoid certain extreme difficulties that will otherwise bring the project to practical grief.
I’m not going to critique this view. I’m going to note that it’s a bit much to claim it without argument. It’s even more to claim it without even claiming it, in so many words. It’s implicit in ‘Durkheimian utilitarianism’, I take it. If I have guessed Haidt’s riddle rightly.
In my follow-up post – if and when I get around to writing it! – I’m just going to set all this aside. I’m going to try to back up and re-approach, more considerately, the proposition that Haidt skates up to and right over (and Trilling did the same, and Mill before him): how and why, and to what degree, does it make sense to say that we need a balance of ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ – left and right: progressive and conservative, call it what you will – as an epistemic optimum?
Last and probably least, I hinted there’s a Chesterton connection. ‘Nixon Goes To China with a Chestertonian antinomy double-lutz’. What is Chestertonian antinomianism? I have actually written about it before.
‘Antinomian’ from an + tinom, proto-Germanic for ‘on tin’. The earliest occurrence is in Wodehouse: “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.” By metaphoric extension, ‘antinomianism’ was … applied, generally, to anyone who, like Chesterton, considers that, for some obscure reason, the law doesn’t apply to him.
Chesterton makes orthodoxy seem wonderfully plausible by the simple expedient of being so utterly heterodox about it. We can swallow all of Chesterton’s paradoxes because he assures us he hates paradoxes. So it’s probably alright. This feels like ironic wisdom, not simply logical contradiction. Honestly, I’m kind of a sucker for this stuff. I love Chesterton and I really like Trilling. I like Haidt, too. But honesty compels me to point out that this cleverness can also be a license to sheer laziness. It wants to be the wisdom of seeing both sides. But it might be just switching sides, as you like it. That’s the danger with Haidt, too.